Yesterday my great-uncle Boardman died. It wasn't unexpected, or sudden. In fact, for him at least, it was rather welcomed. He was 98 years old (98 1/2 if you want to measure in pre-kindergarten terms) and he had lived a full and happy life.
Uncle Boardman was the second husband of my great-aunt Lorraine, my Mom's father's sister. Aunt Lorraine and her first husband had parted long before my birth, and even though I apparently met Mom's Uncle Joe once, I don't have a memory of it (which is surprising, given my elephant-like memory) and in my lifetime and to my way of thinking Aunt Lorraine has always been followed by "And Uncle Boardman.
Growing up, I had only one grandparent after the age of 3. My Grandpa, who I have only a couple of vague memories of, passed away shortly before my 4th birthday and I never met my Mom's father, and since her mother passed away before Kimberly or I were born, my Grandma Ramona was my only grandparent. I had a number of great-aunts and uncles, but of those, I only ever met 4 sets of them. My Grandpa on my father's side was one of something like 7 or 8 children and so there were numerous great-aunts and uncles there, but by the time we made a trip to South Dakota, only one of Grandpa's siblings was still alive there.
On Mom's side I had two sets of great-aunts and uncles, and even though there was never a birthday or Christmas that went by without a card or gift from Uncle Bob and Aunt Marilyn, I only saw them about 4 times in my life.
Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Boardman were different. They visited us more frequently than any other relative. I'm sure this is because Aunt Lorraine's sons lived in Montana and Idaho, and so it was easy enough to steer their RV towards Washington after a visit with them. I can remember how excited my sister and I would be when we'd hear that they were coming for a visit. They were like another set of grandparents to us, and we never got the impression that we were any less important, or any less loved than their grandchildren.
I remember one particular visit, when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, and we were sitting in our living room one evening and Uncle Boardman was telling jokes. He started telling us, "It was a dark and stormy night…" If you've never heard this joke, it is a cyclical never-ending joke. It goes like this, "It was a dark and stormy night, and a band of brigands gathered around the campfire. And the Captain said, 'Antonio, tell us a story,' and Antonio said, 'It was a dark an stormy night, and a band of brigands gathered around the campfire, and the Captain said, 'Antonio, tell us a story…'" Obviously, the joke of this is that it never ends. I was trying valiantly, and failing, to stay awake because I wanted to hear the end of the joke. My parents said it was time for bed, and I remember this as clearly as if it was yesterday, I said, very sleepily, "But I want to hear Uncle Boardman tell the end of the joke." The adults, and probably my sister too, started laughing so hard they couldn't compose themselves. It was a few years before I understood why that was so funny.
As I grew older, I learned more about Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Boardman when they visited. To me they were always the same people, and I had never thought much about where they'd come from, they were just Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Boardman. I learned that not only was Uncle Boardman retired from the Air Force, which was still the Army Air Corps when he joined, but he was also a retired Episcopalian Priest. I knew that he was a pilot, but I hadn't known until I was a little older that he'd flown a number of missions in World War II. He wrote a book about not only his experiences in the war, but also of his long career of flying, and his love of airplanes of all shapes and sizes.
When Matt and I got married, Matt was so thrilled to be able to, ever so briefly, speak with Uncle Boardman about his experiences in the war. And Uncle Boardman was thrilled to have someone to tell about his flying days. They even kept up an email correspondence for a short time, with Aunt Lorraine doing the typing for him since his eyes were getting weaker and he couldn't see the computer very well anymore.
As the years progressed, we didn't see Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Boardman anymore because it was too difficult for them to travel up here, and it was harder for us to get away from the store. Last year Mom's cousin Linda planned a family reunion to celebrate Aunt Lorraine's impending 90th birthday. We celebrated it several months early so that most of the family could travel to one somewhat central location without being hampered by weather, or school, or holidays.
Last August I got to spend a wonderful weekend with them, and even though Uncle Boardman was weak and frail, he was still him. He was still the same man with a great sense of humor, a deep faith, a love of flying, and somewhat surprisingly, a very dirty mind! He spent most of the weekend in his wheelchair, somewhat hunched over, and seemingly in his own world. This is not to say that he wasn't as sharp as ever, but due to his failing eyesight, and hearing, and physical strength, he couldn't engage in a large group setting.
I sat down next to him and started talking to him about airplanes and the change in him was amazing. He raised his head, and the sparkle came back into his eyes, and he told me all about his flying career both military and commercial. He simply came to life again when given the chance to share his love of flying with someone. He showed me pictures and gave me copies of his flight lists from WWII and Korea. He also gave me a copy of a newsletter written for his other career, with the church. The topic of this one was near and dear to my heart too, as it dealt with "Do animals go to Heaven?" Being as I consider him a very wise and knowledgable man, I told him I was taking his word on this one, and it is such a relief to know that he was greeted by not only his beloved dog Cinnamon, but our beloved Cinnamon (whom they named theirs after) as well.
That Sunday morning as I prepared to head for home, I made a last trip up to my cousin Sheri's house. At this point I should explain that I have never been good at saying goodbyes. No matter how long or short the trip, no matter the circumstances, I have always been a blubbering mess when it comes time to say goodbye. As I went around the house saying my goodbyes to cousins I hadn't seen in years, and my Uncle Ray and Aunt DeeDee who I see every few years, I saved the hardest two goodbyes for last. I gathered all my courage and went to say goodbye to Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Boardman. This last one was particularly difficult for me because I knew in my heart that this wasn't just another goodbye, but it was a true goodbye. I hugged him and kissed him and told him that I loved him, and I will always treasure his last words to me. He said, "I love you too. You're very lovable." After that, I got in my car and drove away, crying for about the first 20 miles of my journey home.
I'm so thankful for that last visit with him, and for the chance to say goodbye. And I'm so thankful to know that no matter how weakened his body became, no matter how dim his eyesight, or how poor his hearing, he was still the same man he always was. He still had such an incredible love for his God, his beautiful wife, and his airplanes, that nothing could ever diminish.
So, as sad as I am that he is now gone from this earth, I have to be so thankful for the time that I got to spend with him, the lessons I learned from him, and of course the corny jokes. And there is not a doubt in my mind that he was lovingly welcomed into Heaven by his Father who said to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest."